I tweeted a few days ago that Michael Gove’s reforms to the English GCSE curriculum reminded me of Putin’s Literary Canon pronouncements a few years back– nationalistic, narrow-minded and reductive. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the head of OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform claims that Michael Gove has personally intervened to ensure that where novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird would have originally been studied, students will now be examined on a work of fiction or drama originating from the British Isles since 1914.
I am deeply concerned that the education secretary has been allowed to interfere in the English Literature curriculum without consultation with teachers and universities about this. There is no university department which teaches an English Literature degree without reference to writers from outside the UK, for the simple reason that literature is not something which is restricted by geographical borders- it is designed to challenge and breakdown barriers, not to reinforce them in such an arbitrary and mindless way.
And, to steal David Cameron’s favourite phrase, let us be perfectly clear, while there are plenty of students who could and would engage with the works of Jane Austen and Dickens, there are plenty of students who would find the language and volume of reading a struggle. Lower ability students will be penalised as they will require extra support to access the lexis, syntax and context of these novels in the limited contact time that they have with their teachers. So this latest reform will do to the novel what his plans to have primary school children learning and reciting poetry by rote will do- turn more and more students off Literature.
Students used to ask me why I chose to study English Lit at university- and I would tell them it was because I couldn’t decide what subject to study. When studied properly, literature allows you to study history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religion… it broadens the mind. That’s what worries me about this latest announcement, it’s so incredibly reductive it makes me wonder if Gove isn’t one of those little grey men from Michael Ende’s Momo, ripping the colour and fun out of education for every child in the country because they are at odds with his personal values.
Whatever he is, he’s a very dangerous man.
If you ever drop in on my Twitter account, you’ll know that I was in New York for work last week. Working with jet lag was… interesting, fun but very hard work concentrating. The upshot was that my hotel was very close to Central Park so I went wandering there in the afternoons after work and spent most of Saturday marching around from landmark to landmark, from The Mall to The Conservatory Water (via the zoo…). I loved Central Park and could wax lyrical about how amazing I thought it was for hours (pops up in so many books as well) but I won’t instead I will share with you some of the literary statues I managed to track down using a Central Park Map I printed before I went.
I tried getting to The Shakespeare Garden and hunting down the Romeo and Juliet statue on the Saturday but unfortunately that whole area was fenced off for an Alicia Keys/Stevie Wonder concert that I didn’t have a ticket for… did I miss anything else?
A beautiful passage from a brilliant book which sprung into my mind today. If you haven’t read The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, you really, really must.
Facebook is pretty annoying, but when you take out the equation the big, worse-than-annoying stuff you see (racism, homophobia, etc.) by unfriending people, one of the most annoying things I’ve ever seen was someone who wrote in their favourite books section: “I don’t read fiction, I prefer to spend my time on things which actually have some relevance in the world.”
I had to count to ten. And breathe deeply. And swore anyway.
It really annoys me when people just dismiss books as being trivial. They aren’t. This is why books are still banned and still get burned. People are scared of the ideas they contain because they have meaning and power. But you’ve no doubt heard this all before so I will leave you with an appropriate put down from Jane Austen, which you must deliver in your best impersonation of Downton Abbey’s Lady Grantham the next time you see someone utter something so dismissive.
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Or to give the quote in full:
Anyhow, he gives large parties,” said Jordan, changing the subject with an urban distaste for the concrete. “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.
The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald
Call me morally bankrupt, but I could quite fancy going to a Great Gatsby party, just once… thought I did read a brilliant article on The Atlantic about “the sublime cluelessness of throwing lavish Gatsby parties” which said “it’s a bit like throwing a Lolita-themed children’s birthday party.”
So, I won’t be throwing my own. But if you happen to be planning one, be sure to invite me.
Badgers remind me of my childhood. Mysterious woodland animals who usually played a noble role in fiction, defending the weak, standing up for what was right… They remind me of more innocent days in my naive youth. A time when I believed that a democratically elected government had to listen to the views of the people, or, if they insisted upon taking a paternalistic approach, the mainstream of scientific opinion… you know, silly things like that…
Given the UK government’s current foray into badger fiction* (fiction in the sense that they are flying in the face of the facts/a ten-year independent scientific study into badgers and Bovine TB) I thought I would share my top five badgers in actual fiction.
I was obsessed with the Redwall Series by the late, great Brian Jacques when I was small. I’ve always had a fondness for rodents. The Redwall books are a little like what Lord of the Rings might be if you take out the magic and replace hobbits, dwarves and orcs with mice, squirrels and wildcats. My favourite characters always the badgers and the mice. Though the badgers are noble characters, they suffer from bloodwrath which turns their eyes red, the sign of a great warrior who will not hold back or even be able to restrain themselves in the heat of battle.
If you’re of a similar age to me, you’ll probably remember The Animals of Farthing Wood as a television series in which a diverse group of woodland animals who are threatened by man’s interference in their wood, form a motley crew and journey to the safety of a woodland reserve. It doesn’t look as though this will go ahead, due to the smaller animals natural fear of the carnivores eating them, until Badger suggests they take an oath of mutual protection. It’s a very nice story about understanding other people’s limitations and supporting them (Badger carries Mole on his back because he can only walk very slowly). Someone should also read it to the Environment Secretary because it makes the point that animals under threat migrate.
Now Tommy Brock is a very naughty badger, the kind of badger you could imagine the government wanting to do something about. Don’t be fooled by his smart waistcoat and downturned gaze. This is the kind of badger who would steal a nest of baby rabbits and hides them in Mr Tod’s oven. Now you might say that badgers don’t commonly eat rabbits in the wild. To that I say, foxes don’t commonly own ovens. We’re suspending our disbelief here. Suspended? Thank you. Many people love Beatrix Potters “good characters” but I’ve always had a soft spot for the villains. Yes, I prefer Samuel Whiskers to Tom Kitten, and I salute Tommy Brock for stealing the baby rabbits and making everyone wonder why Benjamin Bunny decided to sire a family with his first cousin Flopsy. Well, that’s rabbits for you.
I admire any badger that wears a dressing gown, and the solitary Mr Badger may have attempted to stage one of the first interventions in literature when he tried to dissuade Toad from his path of self-destruction by placing him under house arrest. Interestingly, Badger and Mole are driven out of Toad Hall by a crew of stoats and weasels. Did you know that the TB virus can survive for a very long time in empty badger setts, infecting any badgers which move into the area. Interestingly, since rats and weasels move into Toad Hall, rats, weasels and ferrets can also carry the disease. As can foxes. And deer… shoot anything that moves will be next.
This Old Narnian badger rescues Prince Caspian and hides him when he is fleeing from his evil, murderous Uncle Miraz. As a good and true Narnian, he surely lives on in Aslan’s Country, the true Narnia. But you have to wonder what fate lies in store for less vocal members of the meles meles if the government proceed with this madness.
Honourable mention should go to Bill of Rupert the Bear fame and Captain Ramshackle of Automated Alice but I felt that we had one randomologist too many in the form of Owen Paterson at this time.
* Even if your name isn’t Sherlock, you will notice that I have used this post on fictional badgers to ram home my views on the cull. I make no apology for that, it is madness. A ten-year study has shown that culling will not solve the problem of Bovine TB. It may in fact make it worse as studies showed TB decreasing in cull zones but rapidly increasing in surrounding areas. 92% of the surveyed British public are against the culls so both the scientists and the people the government have been elected to represent are being ignored.
If you’re a UK resident and as annoyed about this as I am please sign this petition. It’s already been debated once and the cull was postponed. Hopefully a second debate will see the cull cancelled altogether and Bovine TB managed through vaccination, improved husbandry and better biosecurity.
On the one hand it’s an impressive debut novel with characterisation which grips and shakes you as it touches on the lives of a diverse group of people who are connected by their experiences in an metaphorically incestuous community on the remote island of St Hauda’s Land.
On the other, the narrative weaves these stories together as if they should lead the reader somewhere and I don’t see the point in a red herring outside of crime fiction. For me, they only detract from the story being told here. It’s as if Shaw hasn’t decided whether he’s writing a fairytale or a story which contains magic realism. It might seem trivial, irrelevant even, but to me they are very different genres and while I’m in favour of a little generic cross dressing, I think that these genres can’t be fairly combined without creating a story which isn’t entirely satisfactory.
If we take Ida’s feet as the main story and bring with that the associated stories of Midas’ father, Henry Fuwa and Midas’ mother, Carl Maulsen and his obsession with Freya… good, you’ve got a great story and it’s worth reading the book for this. But then you look at the extra touches that have been thrown in and they become red herrings which, if the story was a fairytale, should lead to resolution and, if it is intended as magic realism, begin to look like little more than creative conceits. What, for example, is the point of the constant references to the creature which turns everything it looks at white? What is the point of Midas’ father’s letter? By the time I finished the book, I felt underwhelmed by what should have been a really moving conclusion because I was still waiting to see why the author had devoted so much attention to writing about these details which were never revisited.
In addition to that, I think the book as a whole could have done with a harder edit. The language is more flowery than is generally fashionable these days, leading to passages such as this which made me roll my eyes:
“Overnight the head of a fat old rose in Catherine’s had shed petals like burnt bits of ribbon into a glass vase. Midas stared sadly at the warped red planets in the water’s cosmos and thought of Ida’s legs.”
I can’t believe that got past an editor without a request to slash either the simile or the metaphor. But worse for me was the inclusion of occasional mistakes which should have been picked up by anyone who read the final draft of the book. For example, on page 81 of my copy, Denver is described as “a mouse-haired seven-year-old with a grin full of disorganized teeth” then on page 82 as “an earnest child with a whizz of ginger hair, eyes too big for her freckled face and newly grown adult teeth overlapping like a hand of cards”. Why do we have the double description of her teeth, let alone the conflicting descriptions of her hair colour only a page apart?
This will seem very petty, but the litter of awkwardly flowery language and silly oversights, coupled with unnecessary red herrings and plot holes really did detract from my enjoyment of what was otherwise a really imaginative story with great potential.
Have you read this book? How did you feel about these points?
If you’ve read this blog for a while you probably know I have a slightly sacrilegious attitude to many of the classics which form the literary canon, but despite this I love Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and all things Brontë. The sister’s lives could have been a novel in their own right, I’m pretty there isn’t a massive motion picture being promoted at the moment, given the success of biopics about Keats, Austen and Potter in recent years. Either way, their books are amazing, a blend of the Gothic and Romantic traditions which are perfect for reading on cold winter nights.
Consequently, I have decided that Brontë inspired items would make great Christmas presents for the Romantic (with a capital R of course…) in your life. Here’s a list of my favourites.
I love this necklace for the free thinking woman in your life. As my boss reminded me, much to my amusement, when we were selecting book covers in work the other day; bird cages are very on trend. This trinket adds weight to the motif with a well-chosen quotation on the presentation card, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
If it was the Romance with a capital ‘R’ that brought you here, then I think that these earrings which quote Cathy’s outburst about Heathcliff being “More myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” has to get a mention. Almost certainly one of the best declarations of love in literature, and one of the ones with the most heartbreaking outcomes for the couples involved.
If you’re looking for a present for an aspiring writer, they may take inspiration from this mini journal which is embossed with Charlotte Brontë’s writing from the manuscript of Jane Eyre. It’s a bargain at £6.99 and would make a lovely diary.
I mentioned some time ago that I didn’t want so much as need this amazing paper cut style poster which is being sold to raise money for a charity which aims to fight illiteracy. So for about £40 you effectively have a gift that gives twice, a beautiful picture for the recipient and a better life for someone who learns to read.
It may be because I’m decorating my house at the moment, but I’m a big fan of this Wuthering Heights decal which contains part of one of my favourite passages in literature. I think it’s great inspiration for a gift for a book worms, you could order a custom decal with a favourite passage from any book, or even a song lyric. I would put this up in a shot if my boyfriend would let me. Compromise leads to a very bland aesthetic.
The Melting Library sells beautifully scented soy candles and has a great range based on a wide variety of books. I want so many of them. If you want to experience being out on the winding, windy moor more fully while reading in the comfort of your own home (or bath) then this Wuthering Heights inspired Wild Heather Emily Brontë candle is just the ticket. Just be careful you don’t stir up any ghosts by leaving it alight in your window…
Anne Brontë always seems to me to be the overlooked sister, but I love this greeting card with a quotation from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Obviously it would work well as a card in it’s own right, but pop it in a frame and it would make a lovely artwork for a gallery wall such as the one I’ve been creating in my dining room…
This evening finds me sat in a hotel room in the beautiful and atmospheric city of Edinburgh. I’m here for work, so no sightseeing for me(boo!) though it is difficult to avoid the stunning sights of Prince’s Street and The Royal Mile as you walk from Waverly Station. Having finished work for the evening, I wished I’d brought some reading with an Edinburgh inspired flavour. Maybe the next time I visit I will have put together a more comprehensive list of books to read in Edinburgh. In the meantime, here’s an off the top of my head list of books I’ve enjoyed which have an Edinburgh setting:
After You’d Gone– Maggie O’Farrell
The best of all Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, After You’d Gone explores what Alice, languishing in a coma, saw at Edinburgh Waverly Station that was so terrible it made her get straight back on a train to London and walk out in front of a car. I read this in my second year of university before making my housemates read it. For about a month solid we spent every evening crying… in a good way… I think.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie– Muriel Spark
The novel about an Edinburgh school teacher and the unique education she gives her charges, a select clique who become known as the Brodie set. It’s been a very long time (over ten years) since I read this book, but still the immortal understatement that “Hitler was rather naughty” stands out in the memory. I understand it was made into a film starring Maggie Smith who I love, so I need to watch that.
One Day– David Nicholls
You probably need no introduction to the hit novel One Day which follows friends and sometimes star-crossed lovers Emma and Dexter from their graduation in Edinburgh on St Swithin’s Day 1988, and returns to their lives on the same day for the next 20 years before returning to Edinburgh in 1988. Another tear jerker, I’ve met quite a few men who’ve said it made them cry like babies.
The Inspector Rebus Series- Ian Rankin
Again, this series needs very little introduction, but if you’re looking for a starting point into what has been called “Tartan Noir”, then look no further than Knots and Crosses which sees the eponymous Rebus struggling to solve the abduction and strangling of young girls, while receiving strange missives which suggest the murderer maybe someone closer to him than he realises…
I’m planning to drag my boyfriend North of the Wall for a visit next year, so was really pleased to come across this helpful link for more Edinburgh inspired reading, but I’m sure there’s more out there. What books with an Edinburgh connection would you recommend? I’m keen to expand my reading list!